Connecting with the Composer

Decades after graduation, I gave John Cage another listen.

September 2023

Reading time min

Illustration of a man pulling back a curtain to reveal a man playing a piano

Illustration: Keith Henry Brown

‘We had the experience but missed the meaning,” T.S. Eliot wrote in 1941 about the years between World War I and World War II. Recently, I’ve been thinking the same about my four years at Stanford.

Some things were immediately obvious: that the world was more interesting than I had guessed; that not everything I had learned in high school was true; that I would never live in a more beautiful place than the Foothills by the Bay.

But the meaning of some experiences didn’t unfold for decades. As an English major, I read Shakespeare’s King Lear at least three times, but I didn’t connect with the play until I became a professor and had to teach it.

Marjorie Perloff, now a professor emerita of English, was a rising star when I visited her introductory poetry class during ProFro week; a year later, I took the class for real. Perloff was an early champion of poet Frank O’Hara. At 18, I hadn’t experienced the world enough to recognize what he was writing about, and I hadn’t learned to appreciate the art of his seeming artlessness. He just seemed lazy.

He wanted listeners to hear the notes: not as a tune but as individual sounds.

In 1992, my senior year, Perloff put on a conference on avant-garde composer John Cage. Privately, I considered Cage a benign fraud. His most famous composition, 4'33", features one or more musicians doing nothing at all. After 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the performance ends. It reminded me of the Batman episode where the Joker submits a blank canvas to an art contest. The judges connect his non-painting with “the emptiness of modern life,” and the Joker wins.

It wasn’t until my 50s that I made an effort to understand Cage. I was writing a book about creativity: Where do great songs come from? How much of creativity is just chance? It was time to give him a second listen, and to actually read what Perloff had written about him.

Cage’s approach to music changed when he read the I Ching, a Chinese text used in decision-making and a gift from one of his students. At its core is a table that assigns concepts to groups of six random numbers. For these, Cage flipped coins. If you flip a coin six times, there are 64 possible permutations. In the I Ching, permutation 1 equals qián, or force; permutation 2 equals kūn, acceptance; and so forth.

From this, Cage derived his own set of rules to convert random numbers into sound. Most of his compositions are a series of random notes, of random length and random loudness. He wanted listeners to hear the notes: not as a tune but as individual sounds. Improvisation, in his mind, locked you into existing patterns. Liberation would occur when you stopped choosing notes for yourself and surrendered to the universe, which makes itself accessible in the form of chance.

You can study Cage to understand his methods and still not enjoy his music. Perloff, in an interview at the conference, hinted that he might be remembered more for his writings than for his music.

Her frankness was liberating 30 years ago, and still is.

David Wilson-Okamura, ’92, is an English professor at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C. Email him at

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